East-end showplaces: The Ace Theatre

Al Jolson was no stranger to Toronto. From 1913 until a few years before his death in 1950, the King of Broadway called Toronto his second home, cavorting up and down his custom-made runway at the Royal Alexandra Theatre several times.

While appearing in movies and on radio throughout the ’30s and ’40s, his stage appearances dwindled, but his fans could always see him on the big screen.

The above photo of the Ace Theatre, at Danforth and Gough, was taken during the week of August 4, 1947. At the time, Jolson was enjoying a hearty comeback due to The Jolson Story, Columbia’s biopic starring Larry Parks, which ran for eleven weeks at the Tivoli (where Jolson’s first film, The Jazz Singer, premiered in 1929) and was still playing the 2nd-run circuit at the time this photo was taken.

The massive success of The Jolson Story prompted studios to re-release some of his older films. The Heart of New York is the reissued title of Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), a socially-minded depression-era flick directed by Lewis Milestone, which featured Jolson living in Central Park with former silent clowns Harry Langdon and Chester Conklin.

With twelve minutes cut from the original film, one has to wonder if the film’s socialist overtones made it past the post-war censors who were chopping away at what the folks lining up outside the Ace saw that day.

In April 1913, three months after Jolson’s first Royal Alexandra appearance, the 656-seat theatre on the Danforth  appeared in newspaper listings as the New Onoka Theatre and became the Iola later that year. Nat Taylor’s 20th Century chain took over the building in the early 1940s, renaming it the Ace in 1946, and featuring similar doors to the ones still in use at the modern-day Bloor Cinema.

The name change also brought a little bit of downtown Toronto to the east end; the lettered pylon above the marquee was moved from another 20th Century cinema, the former Ace Theatre at 39 Queen St. West.

Despite owning bigger theatres like the Circle and the Midtown (now the Bloor), 20th Century often premiered first-run films in three working-class ‘nabes along the Bloor-Danforth strip: the Ace; the Kenwood, at Dovercourt; and the Esquire, near Runnymede, neighbour to the Runnymede Theatre.

Of the three structures, only the Runnymede, now a Chapters bookstore, resembles anything from days gone by. The Kenwood closed in 1956 but still stands with a permanently ambiguous street-front. The Ace, one of several east end showplaces to close down mid-century which featured a very popular Saturday matinee programme, is now a Mark’s Work Warehouse.

Image source: Top photo, Archives of Ontario; Advertisement, Toronto Daily Star, August 6, 1947.

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